What Is It About Opium?

What is it about opium? To listen to drug warriors these days, it is the lifeblood of terrorist organizations around the globe. Ohio Rep. Rob Portman lamented that Americans who spend money on heroin (made from Afghani opium) are financing the Taliban, who in turn protect terrorists like Osama bin Laden. Therefore, say Portman and his ilk, reducing drug demand and disrupting drug trafficking organizations is part of the war against terrorism.

Translation: Anti-drug agencies and their supporters are afraid of seeing their budgets cut in favor of other law enforcement priorities. And, they're anxious to get themselves back in the headlines. So it's business as usual for the drug warriors -- stretch the facts as much as necessary, ignore the key issues, and hope no one notices -- or if some people do notice, hope that no one else notices them.

In reality, the resources being poured into the drug war can only come at the expense, not the benefit, of all other budget priorities, law enforcement or otherwise. Certainly, some drug traffickers will turn out to have ties to terrorist groups; but that doesn't mean that indiscriminately targeting all users and sellers of all drugs, is even a remotely efficient way of tracking down or dismantling or disempowering perpetrators of terrorism.

Not to mention that most heroin reaching the US now comes from Latin America, not Asia or the Middle East -- another fatal flaw in Portman's logic. And would an attack on opium cultivation and distribution do anything other than move the supply and supply lines from place to place? That's all such operations have ever done before. Such displacement might take some cash out of the hands of one set of enemies, but could just as easily put it in the hands of another. And eradicating the opium trade from the war-shattered land of Afghanistan, where it is one of the primary sources of income, is an even less realistic than usual drug war strategy.

But there's a larger issue at stake, which drug warriors hate to talk about, at least in a context like this. Why is that opium destined to be processed into heroin is a funding source for crime and terrorism, but opium intended for pain medicines or anesthesia isn't?

Are they two different types of opium? No. Are the drugs highly different? No, heroin and morphine, for example, are essentially similar. Not that any of that would make any difference anyway.

The only difference between opium for heroin and opium for pain meds is that pain meds are manufactured, distributed and taken legally. Heroin, on the other hand, is illegal.

In other words, the reason that opium grown to ultimately be processed into heroin provides easy money for terrorists, is heroin is illegal. And the converse is also obvious: Legalization of drugs would eliminate hundreds of billions of dollars a year of illicit profits, some of which accrues to perpetrators of terror and other violence. While the connection between drug prohibition and terrorism can be overstated; it is clear that ending prohibition is one of the steps that must be taken to make the world a safer place. It is equally clear why drug warriors don't like to talk about this.

Ignoring these undeniable facts is hard to excuse under ordinary circumstances. To still do so now, when Americans are filled with pain and fear and are seeking real answers, and to do so for political and budgetary gain, is a profound failure to lead. What is it about opium, and other such drugs, that our leaders refuse to think or speak rationally about them, at the most important times?

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